It’s the world’s oldest bigotry and it’s on the rise again. Antisemitism is associated with the darkest chapters of human history when humanity abandons civilised moral codes. Societies and ideologies which embrace it typically suffer a major decline if not complete destruction. Examples span the latter years of the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, the suppression and pogroms of the old USSR, to the Nazi implemented Holocaust of the second world war.
Reports from the United Kingdom, numerous European countries, United States, Canada, South America and Australia point to a dangerous resurgence of antisemitism. Recent cases of Jewish boys attending Melbourne state schools, particularly the image of a 12-year old Jewish boy forced under threat of a bashing to kiss the feet of a Muslim student, have shone an international spotlight on antisemitism in Australia. Another older Muslim student sent vile threats to the boy which included the words ‘I’ll slaughter you’, a matter now in the hands of the police. What’s going on? That this is happening within living memory of the Holocaust should shock all people of goodwill.
Antisemitism is recorded from biblical times. In the Exodus from slavery in Egypt Jewish people were attacked for no apparent reason by the nation of Amalek. Our sages teach that Amalek represent the irrational spiritual hatred of Jews.
Antisemitism in some ways has the characteristics of a virus which morphs. During the Inquisition it was hatred of the Jewish religion with forced conversions by torture. Under the USSR it was Jewish culture such as circumcision or teaching Torah which was banned. The Nazis took a racial approach with the objective to eliminate the Jewish race. In more recent years, it is hatred of the world’s only Jewish state, Israel, which has become the principal focus for antisemites. Yes, anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
There are several sources of antisemitism today which taken together comprise a ‘perfect storm’. They all need to be identified, called out clearly and dealt with as effectively as possible.
Across Europe, Islamic antisemitism looms large. There are areas with large Muslim populations where it is now unsafe to be identified as Jewish. A major study by the University of Oslo published in 2016 examined violent antisemitic incidents across seven countries; France, UK, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Russia. Russia was the only exception. Available data suggests that individuals of Muslim background stand out among perpetrators of antisemitic violence in Western Europe. Attitude surveys corroborate this picture in so far as antisemitic attitudes are far more widespread among Muslims than among the general population in Western Europe. The motivation appears to be a combination of theological and anti-Israel sentiment.
The embedding of antisemitism in left wing mainstream political parties is worrying. No longer just in the most extreme vestiges of marginal politics, under Jeremy Corbyn the UK Labour party antisemitism scandal has attracted external and internal condemnation. For the first time ever in the UK, a major political party is under formal investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In the US, the members of the ‘squad’, particularly Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, have brought into the Democrats a level of antisemitism not previously expressed overtly and the party leadership has been found wanting in how to respond. In Australia as recently as the last Federal election in May, there were candidates from the Greens and Labor publicly accused of antisemitism – some were disendorsed or resigned.
A further source is the far-right extremists or neo-Nazi types. The most recent attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany, on 10 October fits this mould. There have been public displays of far-right antisemitism in Europe and the US. In Australia, a group infiltrated the NSW Nationals but were subsequently expelled. Another group known as Antipodean Resistance has been responsible for plastering vile antisemitic posters in universities. Swastikas and other Nazi-style graffiti have increased in areas of Melbourne and Sydney where Jewish communities reside.
Finally, it needs to be said that even Jews are not immune to the virus of antisemitism. We have also seen this phenomenon, sometimes called the self-hating Jews, through history. There were Jews who assisted Stalin in the suppression of Judaism and Jews who worked with the Nazis in the 1930s. Today there are Jewish groups who pursue extreme leftist politics ahead of their Jewish identities and participate in public vilification of Israel. In an extraordinary submission to the Commission investigating antisemitism in UK Labour, the Jewish Voice for Labour urged that antisemitism that is ‘abusive and insulting to Jews… but not unlawful’ be ignored. So, if demonisation of Israel or promulgation of conspiracy theories against Jews by Labour figures does not break a specific British law, that’s fine.
Recently a well-known hard left Jewish-American activist who supports the movement to boycott Israel was denied a visa to Israel but announced with glee receipt of a visa to visit Iran. Says it all.
We are also seeing the most peculiar alliances, united by antisemitism and hatred of Israel. The Red-Green alliance of the hard left with Islamic interests oppose Israel while ignoring completely their foundational issues such as LGBTI or women’s rights. Even America’s best-known white supremacist David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, praised coloured Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar for her antisemitism and anti-Israel speech. The perfect storm consists of Islamic, political left, right-wing extreme and even leftist Jewish antisemitism with these elements operating independently or in combination.
All these components need to be vigorously called out and condemned. The most widely accepted definition of antisemitism is that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which includes working examples of what is unacceptable. Australia became a full member on 4 June 2019. At a minimum, all federal and state bodies, including schools and universities, should formally adopt the working definition of the IHRA. The Australian Jewish Association will be proposing that leadership commence with the federal parliament and we are asking the government to pass a resolution to that effect. While this does not solve antisemitism, it would be a powerful signal that Australia stands united against antisemitism.
Dr David Adler, President, Australian Jewish Association.